For some Hispanic students at North Forsyth High School, the idea of going to college can be a tricky one. Sure, they want to, says freshman Yaquelin Cruz, but it's not always that easy. While many of their peers have college funds started by their parents, or at least the option of student loans, Cruz said her parents have already told her they can't help.
They're telling me to get a job," said Cruz, who has dreams of becoming a pediatrician and hopes scholarships will help her pay for school.Scholarship opportunities for minorities are among the many things Cruz and other Hispanic students at North Forsyth have learned about this year through involvement in the school's YMCA Latino Achievers group.
"We've learned about college, different kinds of scholarships, the importance of tests," said freshman Cindy Sanchez Mora. "It's fun and it really helps us a lot."
Nury Anton, the program's coordinator, said Latino Achievers is designed to help students in the district's fastest-growing demographic overcome unique challenges along the path to graduating from high school. Anton said many Hispanic students fall behind because of a language barrier or pressure to work and help support struggling families. Students in the country illegally are particularly likely to drop out, Anton said.
"They think, 'Why graduate if I can't get a job or go to college?'" she said.
That's where Latino Achievers comes in. Michael Pesce, a social worker at North Forsyth, said the organization has the goals of raising the graduation rate for Hispanic students and strengthening their academic skills.
"This is something they want to participate in," Pesce said, "because they want to do better in school."
The group creates a network and support system for students in similar situations and brings in speakers most months to either inform or inspire the group. Tuesday's meeting was a little bit of both.
Luis Lobo, vice president of multicultural markets for BB&T, shared with a group of 30 ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade students his story of triumph over obstacles, success and perseverance — and also encouraged the students to do the same.
"You have to stay in school," Lobo said. "This is your key."
Lobo encouraged students to work hard, look for scholarships and get to college any way they can. Starting at a two-year school can be a good plan, he said. What's important, he said, is to find a way to continue learning.
That's what Lobo, who was born in Costa Rica, did when his family moved to western North Carolina and he started the fourth grade not knowing a word of English. Lobo said he and his brother were the only Latino students in their school. It was hard work, he said, but he learned English quickly and took every opportunity afforded to him in school.
"I remember sitting where you are sitting, except there were only two of us," Lobo told the students. "You can achieve anything you want to."
Lobo said it's important for Latino students to know that even though they may face challenges, getting an education and advancing can be done.
Another speaker who talked to the group, Aurora Gallegos-Mata, faced arguably even greater challenges than Lobo. Gallegos-Mata, a senior at Salem College and an intern at BB&T, moved to the U.S. when she was 13. Her parents wanted more for their daughter, who was walking an hour and a half each way to attend middle school from their small village in Mexico. She started middle school in Texas knowing not a word of English.
She caught up quickly, learning the language and eventually enrolling in Advanced Placement classes at her high school. Gallegos-Mata attends Salem College, where she will graduate from in May, on a full scholarship. She has accepted a job with BB&T in Dallas.
"I've worked so hard for everything I have," she said.
Knowing the obstacles that Lobo and Gallegos-Mata overcame is inspiring, said freshman Siria Hernandez. Hernandez wants to be an interpreter in the business world. She said that without Latino Achievers, she wouldn't know where to start when thinking about college.
"Our parents can't help us because they don't know," she said. "We have to be independent."